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New York Post

 

Zero to Crash Speed: NY's Next Peril

April 23, 2012

By Nicole Gelinas

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Four years after the 2008 financial crisis, Wall Street still isn’t fixed. Yes, it looks healthier, thanks to the bailouts. But it also seemed healthy before the mortgage bubble popped. When the bailout bubble bursts, New York will suffer more than anywhere else.

The Troubled Asset Relief Program — TARP — bailed out banks, auto firms and AIG. Now some brave souls at the Obama Treasury Department are pushing it as an example of how good government works.

Last week, Treasury released an easy reader crowing that the $700 billion TARP bailout and related Federal Reserve rescues were "well-designed," "carefully managed" and "effective." Treasury boasts that the bailouts could make a "positive return" — that is, a profit — proving the naysayers wrong.

How? The government has lost $22 billion on autos, $16 billion (at least), on homeowner help, and $151 billion on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The profit’s not there.

No, that "positive return" is in finance. Treasury investments in banks and insurer AIG could yield $2 billion. Its mortgage investments (separate from Fan/Fred) could yield $25 billion.

But the big money is at the Fed, which Treasury says will return $179 billion to Washington in "excess earnings."

How’s that? The Fed used to be dull — buying and selling Treasury bonds to tweak interest rates slightly. But since 2008 it’s transformed itself into a $2.9 trillion hedge fund — purchasing toxic AIG assets and nearly a trillion dollars in mortgage securities.

The Fed can make a "profit" simply because this stuff has value as long as interest rates are super-cheap. Low rates mean that more people can pretend they can afford to pay all they’ve borrowed. So the Fed’s assets, which are made up of other people’s debt, look nice.

It helps that the Fed sets interest rates — and kept them near zero for nearly four years. It’s as if an ice-cream salesman could make it hot.

Yet all this carries huge risk for the banks — and for New York, because we’re where the banks are.

As the Fed makes bad stuff seem like it’s worth a lot, the banks blindly follow. They buy the same stuff that the Fed does (sometimes from the Fed) and book their own "profits" as prices rise.

Last week, Bank of America CFO Bruce Thompson said, "We’re all making significantly more amounts of money with less risk."

Hmmm. We’ve heard that before.

Yes, yes, the government has put in place rules, like the Dodd-Frank’s "Volcker Rule," that are supposed to prevent a repeat of ’08. But rules can’t counteract the temptation of free money.

Notice that Goldman Sachs is doing the opposite of everyone else, it’s paring back its business. Because Goldman figured out the last crisis before most people did, that says something.

Zero interest rates can’t last forever. The financial industry figures they’ll last until next year — and one Fed official opined that they may stay until 2015.

Eventually, though, the Fed will have to hike rates. That could create a mess on Wall Street. In 1994, a less dramatic rate hike precipitated billions in losses on mortgage-related securities.

The modern economy has never, ever had rates so low, for so long — and nobody has any idea what will happen when they’re not so low anymore. Wall Street has short memories; the guys who remember ’94 are gone.

A shock will have its usual devastating effect on New York’s economy — and possibly worse, because the Fed will be out of bailout tricks.

Meanwhile, low rates prevent New York City and state from doing what we should be doing: cutting spending and lessening our dependence on Wall Street.

Between now and 2015, city spending on such things as pensions and debt payments will soar 21 percent, from $26.4 billion to $32 billion. If tax revenues from Wall Street collapse, we’ll be looking at savage cuts in core services.

Treasury says not to worry: "The financial industry is less vulnerable to shocks than before the crisis."

The shock may be that Treasury is wrong — that the wave of paper profits is setting us up for another disaster.

Original Source: nicole gelinas, wall street, new york, treasury

 

 
 
 

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